The NFL draft. It’s one of television’s
biggest non-competitive sporting events, with ratings that beat
out NBA playoff games. The annual draft is when pro
teams fill their rosters with fresh talent, selecting top college players
from around the country and from around the world. Eligibility for the
draft is simple. A player needs to be at least
three years out of high school. Rules don’t stipulate that you have
to attend college during that time, but most that are
drafted are college players. There are some exceptions where players
can enter the draft a bit early, but those cases are rare. Every spring, all 32 NFL teams battle
it out over the course of three days and seven rounds of selection to
fill their teams with a new batch of young players. For the 2018 draft, over 16,000
college football players were draft eligible, but less than 2 percent of
them actually made it to the NFL. 255 players were drafted from
college and one player instead was playing professional rugby
in Australia. But even if you do land one
of those highly-coveted spots, not all draft recruits are considered equal
when it comes to pay. There are sizeable gaps in pay
when you compare first-round talent to seventh-round talent. A player drafted dead last can have
a full four year contract worth less than a fraction of a
first-round talent signing bonus alone. But even players all chosen the first
round can face pretty big pay disparities in the range
of millions of dollars. Before the NFL draft became a
premier television event, the battle for new players was fought behind closed
doors and hotel banquet halls. But in 1936, then-NFL league
commissioner Bert Bell decided to formalize the process when he
rolled out the NFL draft. To Bell, the draft was a way to
even the playing field for teams that continue to have losing records. Similar to today, teams with the
worst records would pick first and each round and eventually the teams
with winning records, or that had won the NFL championship,
would pick last. At that time, there were only nine
teams and a total of 81 total draft picks. By 1959, the NFL’s popularity was
at its highest ever, raking in television ratings of over 45
million people for its championship game between the Baltimore Colts
and the New York Giants. That attracted wealthy businessmen to want
to get in on the NFL. But when they appealed to the NFL to
let them start new teams or buy franchises, they were turned down. That had a lot to do with
why the American Football League was founded by Lamar Hunt
in that same year. On November 22nd, 1959, the AFL
hosted its first ever draft. Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of
overlap between the NFL and AFL picks, and the two leagues also
poached talent from one another. That’s a big reason why, in the
1960s, the NFL and AFL merged. The result was the modern day NFL
with its two conferences: the NFC and AFC. And this was also the birth of the
Super Bowl era for the NFL and the modern NFL draft. Each year, when the college football
season comes to an end in January, the journey to
the NFL begins. It’s a short four to five month
path to the draft night, but there’s a lot that goes into transitioning from
a college player to an NFL player. A lot more
than their collegiate stats. There is training, the NFL combine,
the college pro days, visiting NFL teams, and finding
the right agents. That all comes with a
pretty hefty price tag. According to ESPN, the cost of
getting drafted can easily surpass one hundred thousand dollars. While, yes, some players are surefire
first round or second round picks, for other college players who
aren’t guaranteed a top paying contract or any contract at all,
those recruiting costs can be staggering. There are seven rounds in the draft
with a total of 256 draft picks. And the entire draft doesn’t
happen all in one night. It gets split up into three days. But the first round is
the most important round. It is treated as the opening night for the
new NFL season and is one the biggest live events in television. It comes after months and months
of mock drafts by sports analysts and commentators deciding who is going
to be the top pick. General managers, coaches, and scouts
have spent months narrowing down a list of the players that they
want to either pick or trade for in the first round. The second and third round are held
the next day, and the final four rounds are held on the third
and final day of the draft. As for players, the order in which they
are picked is key to how much they make. Even if you’re drafted in the first
round, not all first round picks offer the same amount of
cash for college players. Each player has a draft stock,
which is sort of an unofficial ranking. It plays a big role in
helping teams decide if they want you or not. But your draft stock isn’t just
based on how well you play. Just take Laremy Tunsil, the offensive
tackle for the Miami Dolphins. An hour before the start of the
2016 NFL draft, Tunsil was considered a top five pick. But just 13 minutes before the
draft, Tunsil’s Twitter was hacked and broadcasted a video of him,
well, in an unflattering light. Not a good look if you’re planning
to become a top 5 draft pick. Tunsil’s draft stock fell and he
was eventually taken by the Miami Dolphins as the 13th overall
pick in the first round. While yes, he was still drafted and
drafted in the first round, but according to NPR, Tunsil apparently missed
out on six to eight million dollars on his contract. That’s because what you make is directly
tied to the order in which you are picked in a given round. The sooner you are chosen,
the bigger the salary. Once draft night comes to a close,
it’s time to sign on the dotted line for a player’s
first NFL contract. Up until 2011, because of the
way negotiations were run, the league offer pretty flashy and over the
top deals for players who weren’t always able to deliver
on the field. That changed thanks to the
NFL’s current collective bargaining agreement and new caps
on rookie contracts. There are three main components
of each rookie contract: timing, salary, and bonus. All drafted rookies require a minimum
of four years on the team. Unlike veteran players, new recruits
can’t renegotiate the terms of their deal during the course
of their first contract. The NFL also transitioned to a
rookie wage scale to determine player salaries and bonuses. With this new scale, contracts are pretty
much based on the order in which you’re picked in the draft,
leaving little to no room for negotiation. The wage scale always starts
with the biggest salary and subsequently scales back
from there. Unsurprisingly, the top deal goes to
the first pick of the first round of the draft. And with each pick that follows,
the contracts get smaller and smaller. Wage calculations are based
on the total rookie compensation pool, a number that’s pegged
to the league salary cap. Here’s how that math works. In 2019, the NFL salary
cap is set to 188.2 million dollars. That’s the total amount of money each
team in the NFL is allowed to spend on salaries for both
veterans and rookie players. The percentage that goes to rookies or
each team’s cut of the total compensation pool varies based on
the team’s cap space. A team’s salary cap space depends on
the sizes of the contracts it’s given to existing players. The bigger the contracts, the smaller
the cap space a team has. Just take the Colts. They’re the team with the highest cap
space in the league as of 2019 thanks to little spending in 2018,
which gave the team rollover cash, creating over 45 million
dollars in cap space. Even though each team’s rookie pool will
vary based on salary cap, it ‘s safe to make a few assumptions
about what rookies can expect to be paid. ‘Over the cap’ estimates that the
salary minimum for rookies will be 495 thousand dollars in 2019. In the 2018 NFL draft, for example,
the Browns gave Baker Mayfield a four-year contract worth over 32 million
dollars with a signing bonus of over 20 million dollars and a
base salary of 480 thousand dollars. Baker Mayfield’s contract
dwarfs other rookies. The last player taken in the
first round was also a quarterback. The Baltimore Ravens traded with
the Philadelphia Eagles to select Lamar Jackson as the 32nd pick in
the first round of the draft. While Jackson played in the
same division as Baker Mayfield, Jackson’s contract was four years
and just under 10 million dollars. The very last pick of the
final round of the NFL draft — also known as Mr. Irrelevant — that went to wide receiver Trey Quinn, who received a four year, 2.5 million dollar contract. And then there are players who end
up on NFL practice squad which is basically a small team of younger
players who help pros train throughout the season. Practice Squad members never log
any on-the-field time competing themselves unless they’re promoted. In 2019, practice squad players are said
to be paid 8,000 dollars per week during the regular season. So what happens if your name
doesn’t get called during the draft? Draft-eligible players who don’t get
picked during the draft become undrafted free agents. Undrafted free agents can actually land
salaries that are similar to players that are picked in the last
round of the draft, with a few key caveats. The contract duration is just
three years and, unlike drafted rookies, undrafted free agents actually have
the freedom to go to whichever team they want. There is no limit to how many
undrafted players a team can sign as long as the team doesn’t exceed
the 90 man off-season roster, which, by the time the regular season
comes around, that number gets dropped down to 53 players. But teams can also sign 10 practice
squad players to help the team train throughout the season. But things may change for
rookies in the future. The current collective bargaining agreement
from 2011 is set to expire after the 2020 season, and,
according to the NFL Players Association’s president Eric Winston, the new
CBA will be focusing in part on player contracts, which
could lead to another league-wide holdout. Some of the things that
NFL players might be fighting for are increased pay minimums for
rookie contracts, shorter contract durations, and a larger piece
of the NFL’s revenue. Players have shown in the past that
they’re willing to wait it out to get what they want. Back in 2011, there was an NFL
lockout that lasted 132 days until both parties agreed on terms. With a new CBA on its way, a lot
can change for the NFL and how its players are getting paid.